Shelly The Survivor

Political skills, not iron fist, seen keeping speaker in power after scandal.

05/22/13
Assistant Managing Editor
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Tuesday seemed like any other day for Sheldon Silver as he went about his business in Albany, announcing the Assembly’s passage of the DREAM Act, to increase access to college financial aid for immigrant students.

“Immigration status is an unjustifiable barrier to denying these hardworking students the dream of a college education,” the battle-weary politician who will begin his third decade as Assembly speaker if he’s still around next year, said in a statement.

A member of the Legislature’s lower house since 1976, Silver has held onto his Lower East Side Assembly district all that time, and the speaker’s gavel since 1994 by keeping his enemies at bay, indisputably.

But as he emerges from the Vito Lopez scandal as powerful as ever — facing only muted calls for him to step down after an ethics commission faulted his handling of sexual harassment charges against the Brooklyn legislator and party leader — observers say it’s gratitude rather than fear that keeps him in power.

“Like any politician he understands and serves his constituency,” said Michael Fragin, a political strategist who was an aide to Republican Gov. George Pataki.

“When it comes to both the people in his conference and in his district, he understands what their needs are, and he is very good at keeping them happy.”

For most of his tenure, Silver, perhaps the nation’s most powerful Jewish local elected official, controlled the purse strings that doled out up to $85 million in annual spending for Assembly members’ districts. But beginning in the 2010 budget process, that money was eliminated both because of austerity and corruption in the process amongst some members.

Even without those perks at his disposal, Silver can still help his members by shepherding their bills quickly to a vote, or punish dissenters by letting their bills languish. And in the same way, he is able to help causes he cares about. For example, in 2010 he green-lighted a $445,000 capital grant to Hatzalah, the Orthodox volunteer ambulance corps, for a new communications center, even as the state grappled with a massive budget deficit.

“It’s a very delicate dance to keep so many people happy, and he’s done it for a long time,” said Fragin. “I get the sense a lot of rank-and-file members genuinely like him as their leader. [To see the opposite] look no further than the Senate Democrats to see how masterful Shelly is at it.”

He noted that when Democrats recently had a slim majority in the state Senate, they rotated through several leaders who couldn’t hold onto power. Republicans regained longstanding control in the 2010 election, naming Dean Skelos the majority leader.

“Shelly is a brilliant mind and has good intentions and over the years has gotten a lot done,” said Democrat political consultant Cynthia Darrison, who worked for Silver in a recent election in his district. “He is a master of political strategy.”

Silver faced one coup attempt in 2000 that failed miserably and seems to have cowed other detractors from taking him on since. Currently, only one Democrat of 104 that keep Silver in power has publicly criticized him — Michael Kearns of Buffalo.

Although the carrot seems to be holding most members in line, there is also the stick: As the New York Times noted on Tuesday, Silver and his staff control everything from where members park to the budgets of their offices and how much members earn. With no raises since 1999, the only way to take home more is with a committee leadership post.

“He’s got solid support in the Democratic conference,” says an ally, David Weprin of Queens, who stood behind Silver — literally — when the speaker apologized for his behavior in the Lopez matter at a press conference Monday evening.

Weprin said that while some questioned why Silver ignored the findings of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics for several days, waiting until a Thursday night (June 16) to call for the resignation of Lopez, the speaker, who is Orthodox, said he was observing Shavuot when the report was released and doesn’t work or talk on the phone during religious holidays.

Weprin said that despite his autocratic reputation, Silver delegates power and consults with members. “People love to talk about the Three Men In A Room” — the governor, speaker and Senate leader — but for almost any piece of legislation he spends hours in Democratic conference going over it.”

The JCOPE report rapped Silver for failing to report allegations that Lopez harassed and groped women in his office to the ethics committee and for brokering secret settlements — at taxpayers’ expense — with the plaintiffs. Women’s groups have slammed Silver’s role in the incident and on Monday a group of female Republican Assembly members called on him to resign.

The Daily News reported Monday that Silver had a "tense and angry" meeting with Assembly Democrats after the report was released at which some women members chastised his conduct.

In his press conference Monday night reacting to the report Silver said, “I want New Yorkers to know that I care deeply about this institution and its employees, and that I remain dedicated to our core mission of protecting those who are most in need of a strong and caring government.”

He announced that a bipartisan task force on sexual harassment had recommended that the Assembly provide an independent investigator and/or counsel to probe harassment complaints and make all members and supervisory staff mandatory reporters of harassment.

“In addition, I will be introducing legislation banning confidential settlements by all agencies of the state,” he added.

Lopez, meanwhile has resigned from the Assembly but wants to run for the City Council in his home base of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

* * *

He’s been arrested dozens of times for protesting on behalf of Soviet Jewry. But on May 29, Glenn Richter is considering going back to the barricades, not against the Evil Empire but the Jewish Association of Services for the Aged (JASA).

Richter is upset that the agency is paying tribute at its fundraising dinner to the commissioner of the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) at a time when a popular program for West Side seniors faces a June 30 demise.

“We’re not dealing with evil people here, but we’re dealing with political forces that say give money elsewhere while an organization with 25 years of service is going to be wiped out,” Richter said.

The retired civil servant is a supporter and sometime client of Club 76, which provides a hot kosher lunch and other programs for seniors at Manhattan’s West Side Institutional Synagogue. In the latest round of grants, DFTA did not renew its deal with Club 76, favoring a new program in the Lincoln Square area instead. If the club can’t come up with about $400,000 for rent and salaries soon, the doors will close, and likely stay closed.

Part of the money comes from JASA, which has strived to find funding to keep Club 76 open. But Richter says it’s an insult to the club to honor Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli before they do. He says he may well stand outside the dinner at the Museum of Modern Art with an empty plate in his hand.

“I find a meal like that hard to swallow,” he says, “having people come to a shmancy $500-plus-per-plate fundraiser to honor the head of an agency about to push us over a fiscal cliff.”

Richter said if the agency or other officials chose to, they could find a way to provide the funding outside the contract system. Last year, he said, Councilwoman Gale Brewer came through with temporary funding.

“When there’s a political will there’s a fiscal way,” he said.

Leah Ferster, JASA’s chief services officer, told The Jewish Week Tuesday that efforts to save the club are ongoing.

“We continue to advocate and talk to all the Council members, and we remain optimistic,” she said. 

The CEO of JASA, Kathryn Haslanger, told The Jewish Week in a statement that the agency "is recognizing Lilliam Barrios-Paoli at our annual benefit for her lifelong commitment to public service and her extraordinary efforts on behalf of thousands of New York's aging citizens following Hurricane Sandy."

She added that "JASA has a long-standing, strong partnership with DFTA" in helping seniors.

adam@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

05/20/2014 - 15:18

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